Elephant Populations in Kenya Emerge as New Victims of Poverty

craig_and_marc_kielburger_perspectiveBy Craig and Marc Kielburger

Murka doesn’t trust humans. It’s no wonder.

The 2-year-old baby elephant had a spear lodged in her forehead when she was found hiding in thick bush. Murka charged anyone who came near. After much effort, veterinarians removed the weapon, leaving a large hole in her forehead.

When we saw Murka at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a sanctuary in Nairobi for endangered species like elephants and rhinos, she was isolated from the others. A blanket had been tied around her in preparation for the cold Nairobi night. This can be a dangerous task given her hate for humans. Standing as tall as a man’s chest, a baby elephant can be dangerous.

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Craig Kielburger gets a hug from an orphan elephant. (Photo: Free the Children)

The gash on Murka’s head reminded us of the signs in airports warning travellers of ivory bans. But the young elephant’s tusks haven’t even started to show.

Murka isn’t the victim of traditional poachers. She’s caught in a battle with humans for dwindling land. It’s worsened by poverty and threatens elephant populations worldwide. But you won’t see it mentioned at customs lines.

“One of the major factors in Kenya is too many people with not enough land,” says Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the conservationist who runs the sanctuary named after her late husband. “Elephants need space and are fast finding themselves confined to small refuge areas. Every time they step out, they are in conflict with humans.”

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We’ve spent every summer since we were teenagers in Kenya, befriending many of the sanctuary’s keepers and even bottle-feeding some orphaned elephants. They’re incredibly playful. If you crouch low, they’ll try to knock you over. It’s a rough game but always followed by affectionate hugs with their trunks.

It’s emotional seeing babies released back into the wild. We hope to one day see them again lumbering past our center on the Maasai Mara. Like the people we’ve gotten to know in the nearby communities, we hope that they, too, can overcome Africa’s crippling poverty.

“There is no welfare in Kenya so people survive as best they can,” says Sheldrick. “An expanding human population combined with poor governance amplifies the problem.”

According to a United Nations Environmental Program report released in July, Kenya’s Maasai Mara lost 59 percent of its large animals between 1970 and 2005.

This shocking decline includes elephants caught up in poverty-related issues.

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Visitors play soccer with orphan elephants at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. (Photo: Free the Children)

Kenya’s human population of 38 million is increasing by a million each year, according to the 2009 census. About 67 percent of people live on rural land where farming is the primary means of income. This development pushes animals into reserves.

When elephants wander out searching for food, they trample crops, endangering livelihoods.

“Too many people and not enough land,” says Sheldrick. “The population growth is not sustainable.”

As well as land encroachment, elephants are victims of the illegal bush meat trade. A 2004 survey of 202 Nairobi butchers found 25 percent of their product was actually illegal meat, including elephant.

It’s usually young men who become hunters using traditional methods like snaring. They don’t always succeed in trapping large animals. But, if the prey is injured or bleeding, it’s easy to pick off.

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Although standing chest-height with humans, baby elephants still need to be bottle fed by their keepers. (Photo: Free the Children)

We often see young men unloading large slabs of meat from pickup trucks in market towns on the Mara. The meat obviously doesn’t come from the malnourished cows we pass on the road. A cheaper option than beef or goat, it’s bought by mamas who turn the protein into stews or soups and stretched over a few meals with ugali, an inexpensive, doughy bread that quickly fills the stomach.

For the entirety of her young life, Murka has been in competition with humans for Kenya’s scarce land. No one is sure whether or not Murka was targeted for her meat or for venturing too close to a farm. Either way, it’s clear the young elephant is also a victim of poverty.


About Marc and Craig Kielburger: Marc and Craig Kielburger are children’s rights activists. They are co-founders of Free The Children the world’s leading youth-driven charity which works to free young people from poverty, exploitation and the notion that they are powerless to change the world.


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